Do Baucus’ Ties To Health Care Industry Compromise His Reform Efforts?

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If you’re a long-time politico, you may have seen it coming: Standing between progressives and fundamental health care reform is a 30-year Senate veteran with a reputation cemented long ago as a deal-maker — or less charitably, as a sellout. Montana’s Max Baucus is exactly the sort of centrist often embraced by Washington insiders for “getting things done”–but whose record of acquiescing to special interests makes progressives cringe. As chairman of the Finance Committee he’s weathered his share of controversies. There’s no bypassing Baucus entirely. And he’s enjoying his position at the nexus of the reform battle.

“It’s a parade of lobbyists going in and out of that office every day,” says a Senate aide. “Everyone involved has strong ties back to the industry. And anyone who understands Baucus’ record understands that neither he nor his staffers want to make them unhappy.”

The Senate returns from a brief recess this week to round out–or try to round out–a tough task: finalize, and merge, two substantially different health care bills, and then vote on a final product. All along, the key sticking point in that process has been the question of the public option–but now that every other committee of jurisdiction has settled upon a version of a public option, all eyes are on Baucus and Finance.The Washington Post touched on this dynamic in a widely cited Monday article detailing the tremendous resources–over a million dollars a day–the health care industry is aiming at reform efforts.

According to the Post–now taking heat for its own questionable connections to lobbyists–“The nation’s largest insurers, hospitals and medical groups have hired more than 350 former government staff members and retired members of Congress in hopes of influencing their old bosses and colleagues, according to an analysis of lobbying disclosures and other records.”

Nearly half of the insiders previously worked for the key committees and lawmakers, including Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), debating whether to adopt a public insurance option opposed by major industry groups.

As the article details, the lobbying is widespread, but at this point in the process, only a handful of senators have any real power over the direction reform will take–and of them, Max Baucus may have both the most clout and the greatest number of ties to industry.

Take a quick glance at the website Open Secrets and you can find over a half dozen insurance and pharmaceutical industry lobbyists who were once Baucus staffers.

To name just a few:

  • Roger Blauwet, Baucus’ tax counsel, who now lobbies for Merck, Wyeth, and other pharmaceutical interests
  • Jeff Forbes, Baucus’ former chief of staff, who represents the interests of several pharmaceutical companies
  • Scott Olsen, a one-time Baucus policy adviser, has been a lobbyist for Amgen since 2004.
  • Melissa Wier, Baucus’ former chief trade counsel, who lobbies for Assurant and Ace Limited insurance companies

One particularly noteworthy Baucus alum–a powerful former Baucus chief of staff named David Castagnetti–is now a lobbyists for America’s Health Insurance Plans–the health insurance industry’s enormous and powerful professional association.

None of this will come as a shock to students of politics in Washington, or to Baucus’ many critics on the left, who’ve long criticized him for being too close to moneyed interests.

Unless the legislative reform efforts fail entirely, then Baucus’ Senate Finance Committee is now the last, best hope for the insurance industry, which hopes to avoid a number potential regulations, and desperately hopes to avoid the creation of a government-run health insurance option. Finance is the lone committee on the Hill with jurisdiction over health care not to have announced if it will propose creating such an entity. And it’s the panel where proposals to delay or circumvent the public option (the trigger mechanism, and the co-op proposal) just won’t seem to die.

How much of that is attributable to meetings and favors traded with industry reps is hard to say–but the circumstantial case suggests quite a bit. For instance, Castagnetti also served as director of congressional operations for Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaigns. According to his bio on his firm’s website, he was Kerry’s chief liaison to leaders of the House and Senate and he “sensitively determined Members’ speaking rolls at the [2004 Democratic National] convention.” Five years later, Kerry, a Finance Committee member himself, came under fire from reformers for speaking up in support of the public option trigger mechanism.

I’ve asked Baucus’ staff for comment and will pass it along as soon as it’s available.

The story of powerful interests using their influence to compromise or delay major reform efforts is one of the oldest in Washington. But right now Baucus finds himself both at the center of the action, and working hand-in-hand with the very people who have the most to lose from it. And his committee’s slow pace and resistance to bold measures might best be viewed through that lens.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at brian@talkingpointsmemo.com
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